Tags: translation


Interview with Abeer Ameer

Abeer Ameer is a dentist, born in Sunderland, who lives in Cardiff. Her first collection of poems, Inhale/Exile, reviewed here , focuses on her family’s Iraqi background and was published by Seren  in 2021.

SHEENAGH PUGH: Did you grow up bilingual? If so, what effect do you think it has had on your writing? If not, did you feel you were missing something? (Philip Gross the poet and novelist, who was a colleague of mine at Glamorgan Uni, is half Estonian but his father decided not to teach him the language in case it confused him. He describes himself as having grown up “bilingual in English and silence”).  

ABEER AMEER: “Bilingual in English and silence”. Gosh, what a marvellous expression. 

I grew up speaking Arabic with the Iraqi dialect, and when I started nursery my parents were told to speak to me in English so I wouldn’t get confused. I then spoke English with an Iraqi accent and now speak Arabic in a Cardiff accent.

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Review of "Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World"

Review of "Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World" by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Heida Asgeirsdottir, trs Philip Roughton, pub. John Murray 2019

This is a memoir of a real woman, Heida Asgeirsdottir, an Icelandic sheep farmer, written down by a novelist and poet, Steinunn Sigurdardottir. The latter admits to being influenced in her narrative methods by the books of Svetlana Alexievch, which are based on interviews with many different people. They're good too, I like them myself, but am not sure the technique works so well for reporting one person. The chapters are mainly short, some only one paragraph, and read like bits of random conversation transcribed, then cut and pasted into what sometimes feels like a fairly arbitrary order. The organisation into four seasons does help, but within that pattern, different autumns, winters etc are jumbled together; the book veers wildly between childhood and adulthood and from subject to subject. Also, the story of Heida's fight against the proposal for a huge power plant that would wreck her farm is interspersed with the life of the farm. To me, this narration is too bitty and stop-start.

Heida is interesting on the daily routine of the farm, and often very enlightening:

"If I manage to shear all the sheep on the same day I bring them in, that's a dream because they're like marshmallows, all dry and puffy. The ewes mustn't be inside for more than one night before being sheared, otherwise their wool gets spoiled and has to be marked as second-rate. It's crucial to keep the wool from becoming moist or wet, so that it doesn't start to get mouldy."

Who knew? There's a lot of this and it is fascinating. it would be more so if this book had the map it really needs – I do know roughly where's where in Iceland but needed far more detail about this district, the distances between places and the potential effect of the power plant. A map would have given all of this.

Another problem is the poems, some Heida's, some quotes from famous Icelandic poets. Since all alike come across as total rhyme-led doggerel, I suspect there is a translation problem, related to a determination to preserve the rhymes, which I have come across before in Icelandic novels that contain poems. I think a lot of epigrammatic sharpness goes missing because most prose translators do not really have the specialised expertise to translate poems.

To sum up: much interest but a terribly bitty structure.

Review of Moonstone by Sjón, trs. Victoria Cribb, pub. (in Britain) Sceptre, 2016

Reykjavik, 1918. The long Great War has made supplies scarce; the sky is dark and the air dusty because the volcano Katla is in the process of erupting, and the ship that has just arrived from Copenhagen, the Botnia, is carrying the germs of a deadly influenza epidemic. Well, it's a Nordic novel; you didn't expect anything too light-hearted… On the bright side, the town's two cinemas are importing a lot of the newly fashionable entertainment, films, and the 16-year-old protagonist Mani Steinn Karlsson sees all of them.

The back-cover blurb will tell you this much; what it doesn't mention, and what you might like to be prepared for, is that young Mani is by way of being a prostitute and the novel begins with a quite graphic sex scene. There will be others, but what really matters about Mani is his ability to move between the worlds of fact and fiction, living both in the world of the silent films and the drama simultaneously unfolding in real-life Reykjavik:

The projectionist's silhouette appears in the aperture.

The projector beam is switched off.

Lights come on in the wall lamps.

The young people glance around and only now does it dawn on them how many members of the audience have been taken ill: every other face is chalk-white, lips are blue, foreheads glazed with sweat, nostrils red, eyes sunken and wet.

Silence falls on the gathering.

The 1918 epidemic, and its catastrophic effects on Reykjavik, are real enough, and so are several of the book's characters, notably the English writers and film-makers Kenneth Macpherson, Robert Herring and Annie Ellerman (Bryher) who arrive on the scene near the novel's close in 1929. It is Mani himself who, though someone like him could very well have lived in that place at that time, is, according to the book's subtitle, "the boy who never was". He is a fiction fascinated by fictions, transmuting the reality around him into fictions of his own and becoming, in that odd way fictional characters have, more real than your neighbour down the street, until the moment when the author chooses to remind us with startling suddenness what he really is. It is also at this point that we discover why Sjón has written the novel at all, and it becomes clear that behind the fictional Mani stands a real person, from a later time, who was the inspiration for the novel though he never appears in it.

Much as I admire the book, I don't think some of the hyperbolical endorsements from other writers do it any favours; it may even put some readers into a "right, prove it then" frame of mind. I don't have to think Sjón "achingly brilliant" or believe that he "changes the whole map of literature" in order to find this book original and rewarding, and want to read it again. I'd leave the writing to speak for itself, if I were him:

From the long, low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and planing can be heard, though each hammer blow and bout of sawing is so muffled and muted to the ear that it seems almost to apologise for disturbing the silence. It is here that the coffins are being made. […]

By the end of the working day the undertaker has received five new orders for coffins - and two more will await him at home.

Poems for Poetry-Haters

Arising out of a Facebook post by the poet Jo Bell, which linked to a list of poems to try on people who think they hate poetry. I didn't know any of them (US poems mainly, I think) but it did inspire me to try to list the ones I have had success with in this line when doing classes and workshops. I'm thinking especially of those who say they can't get on with contemporary poetry, by which they usually mean the kind that doesn't rhyme.

1, Napoleon, by Miroslav Holub

Holub is a good poet for folk who think they hate poetry, because he's very direct and non-mystifying. He was a doctor, and that vocabulary and subject matter often informs his work, as in Casualty

2. 170 Chinese Poems, translated by Arthur Waley

The "170" was a famous anthology in my youth and I've never actually met anyone who disliked it. Waley was particularly fond of the poet Bai Ju-yi (once known as Po Chu-i) from the 8th-9th century, who specialised in very simple, direct language (which if course wasn't near as simple as it looks). "Remembering Golden Bells" was a poem about the death of his daughter.

3. "Everything Changes" by Bert Brecht.

This is quite a good way to get non-poetry-readers to see what can be done by playing around with syntax, and how it really isn't that difficult or frightening.

4. "Eden Rock" by Charles Causley.

You might say Causley is the compromise for those who can't get on with free verse, since he never abandoned rhyme and music, but "Eden Rock" is half-rhyme, unobtrusive, form used in a twentieth-century way. It's also very powerful and most folk of a certain age can relate to it. There are others on his page in the Poetry Archive.

Book review: The Quilt and other stories by Ismat Chughtai, pub. The Sheep Meadow Press, New York

I got this book for Christmas. I'd read a post about the author on FB and thought she sounded like my kind of short story writer (and I'm fussy; an awful lot of lauded C20 writers in that form do nothing for me, probably because I keep thinking "well s/he's all right but s/he isn't Chekhov"). Ismat Chughtai (b.1915) was from northern India, a member of the Progressive Writers Movement and her writing, which centres on family life generally seen from a female perspective, is observational, lyrical, angry, comic and pretty much never dull. She conveys a society on the one hand almost broken with corruption, unfairness, outdated customs and at the same time exuberant and multifarious. Weirdly the title story, one of her most famous because it led to a ridiculous obscenity charge, is the least impressive; she was young at the time and couldn't quite handle the unaware narrator. Much more memorable is "A Pair of Hands" in which the wife of a poor man (a sweeper of refuse, away in the army), gives birth to a son who, given the dates, can't possibly he his. The master and mistress of the rich household in which the couple are employed are baffled by the servants' reaction: the erring wife's mother-in-law, though she knows perfectly well that the child can't be her son's, is delighted with it and the husband, when he comes home, reacts the same way, as if he doesn't understand the truth. In the end the master (who is the narrator's father) tries to explain:

"But the boy is not yours, Ram Autar - it's that bastard Ram Rati's" Abba exclaimed in exasperation.
"So what is the difference, sir? Ram Rati is my cousin, his blood is the same as mine."
"You're a stupid fool!" Abba was losing patience.
"Sir, when the child grows up he will help out," Ram Autar tried to explain in a pleading tone. He will contribute his two hands, sir, and he will be my support in my old age". Ram Autar lowered his head with these words.

And who knows why, Abba's head, like Ram Autar's was also lowered, as if thousands of hands were bearing down on it... these hands were neither legitimate nor illegitimate, they were only hands, living hands that wash away the filth from the face of this planet, that carry the weight of its aging.

Ram Autar's attitude is coloured by poverty; with no security for the future except the work of his own hands, he can't afford to be too fussy about where a priceless asset like a healthy son came from. But he, who is thought to be dull-witted, has come closer to appreciating what really matters than his educated employer. In the same way, the young couple in "Sacred Duty" see past the prejudices of their parents and treat them with the disdain they deserve. Chughtai never minimises the problems in her society and the pain they cause, especially to women, and some of the stories end grimly but there is a tremendous life-force in her writing that often ends up triumphing over what would suppress it.
Vogon poetry appreciation chair

James Elroy Flecker and the Turkish Lady

I like adopting personae in poems, partly because I intensely dislike the notion that lyric poems are (or should be) autobiographical and From The Heart. Poems, for me, are a way of being other, of entering a different viewpoint and consciousness, and that applies to reading as well as writing, for just as there is nothing more liberating for a writer than to inhabit another skin, so there is nothing more fascinating (and, often, revealing) than watching another author do so. Below is an example of an author, already working through the mask of translation, interposing a fictional persona as well, and I'm interested in wondering to what end.

James Elroy Flecker's "The Hammam Name" has a playfulness and wildly imaginative humour that have always appealed to me. Briefly, it concerns a young man who goes to the "hammam" or public bath (the word "name" in the title is, I think, the early 20th-century equivalent of "celebrity"). This lad is so impossibly beautiful (or is imagined to be so by the narrator) that not only human beings but inanimate objects fall in love with him on sight. Soap melts with love, a window shatters, bubbles burst like breaking hearts. The hammam's personnel are no more immune: witness the swooning shampooer's priceless line about the full moon.

The poem announces itself as being a translation "from a poem by a Turkish Lady", and this is where the business of persona comes in. It is indeed a translation, and a pretty faithful one both to the poem's events and its rollicking rhythms, by accounts I've seen (I'm no scholar of Turkish, but Flecker was). But this Turkish Lady is a fiction: the original author was in fact one Mehmet Emin Beligh of Larissa, an 18th-century male Ottoman poet.

On the face of it, there's one very obvious reason why Flecker might have wanted to put the poem in a female voice – in a male persona, it's extremely homoerotic, a thing of which Edwardian England might, at least overtly, have disapproved more than 18th-century Turkey did. But I'm not sure this wholly explains the Turkish Lady. After all, the reactions of the male bath-house personnel and customers are unequivocal and in no way played down. Just as educated English audiences were used to accepting, with varying degrees of enthusiasm or reluctance, the fact that Classical Greeks and Romans had more adventurous attitudes to sex than modern Christians, so they knew also that these things were managed differently out East. If Flecker wanted to distance himself from the poem's homoeroticism, all he needed to do was flag it up as a translation from its actual author.

What the Turkish Lady does, it seems to me, is add an extra layer of distance and fictionalising. In the first place, she isn't herself a witness to any of this: she can't be. The hammam was a single-sex environment: women were not necessarily barred, but they would not go at the same times as men. The Lady sees what happens in the first few lines: her young idol walking down the street toward the hammam. From then on, her own imagination and yearning attraction supplies the rest. She projects her feelings on to objects and people who, however hopeless their desire, are at least in contact with the boy in a way that she, in a segregated society, can never be. The soap may melt and the shampooer faint, but they do at least touch him, see him in a state of undress. Bitterness is born of beauty, she says, and the final three words about the frozen water have an emotional impact I don't think they would have in a male voice. Spoken by the man who wrote it, the poem is essentially funny and playful; the boy's inaccessibility more an amusing poetic conceit than anything else. In the voice of Flecker's invented Turkish Lady, it is still playful and imaginative, but the hunger behind it speaks more powerfully and the whole thing becomes more about fictionalising and reshaping.

The Hammam Name by James Elroy Flecker
From a poem by a Turkish Lady

Winsome Torment rose from slumber, rubbed his eyes, and went his way
Down the street towards the Hammam. Goodness gracious! people say,
What a handsome countenance! The sun has risen twice to-day!
And as for the Undressing Room it quivered in dismay.
With the glory of his presence see the window panes perspire,
And the water in the basin boils and bubbles with desire.

Now his lovely cap is treated like a lover: off it goes!
Next his belt the boy unbuckles; down it falls, and at his toes
All the growing heap of garments buds and blossoms like a rose.
Last of all his shirt came flying. Ah, I tremble to disclose
How the shell came off the almond, how the lily showed its face,
How I saw a silver mirror taken flashing from its case.

He was gazed upon so hotly that his body grew too hot,
So the bathman seized the adorers and expelled them on the spot;
Then the desperate shampooer his propriety forgot,
Stumbled when he brought the pattens, fumbled when he tied a knot,
And remarked when musky towels had obscured his idol's hips,
"See Love's Plenilune, Mashallah, in a partial eclipse!"

Desperate the loofah wriggled: soap was melted instantly:
All the bubble hearts were broken. Yes, for them as well as me,
Bitterness was born of beauty; as for the shampooer, he
Fainted, till a jug of water set the Captive Reason free.
Happy bath! The baths of heaven cannot wash their spotted moon:
You are doing well with this one. Not a spot upon him soon!

Now he leaves the luckless bath for fear of setting it alight;
Seizes on a yellow towel growing yellower in fright,
Polishes the pearly surface till it burns disastrous bright,
And a bathroom window shatters in amazement at the sight.
Like the fancies of a dreamer frail and soft his garments shine
As he robes a mirror body shapely as a poet's line.

Now upon his cup of coffee see the lips of Beauty bent:
And they perfume him with incense and they sprinkle him with scent,
Call him Bey and call him Pasha, and receive with deep content
The gratuities he gives them, smiling and indifferent.
Out he goes: the mirror strains to kiss her darling; out he goes!
Since the flame is out, the water can but freeze.
The water froze.
Heslop from Porridge

Words and gaps

Apparently one's nephews and nieces can be referred to, collectively, as one's niblings (by analogy with siblings but more endearing). I like this word. I don't know who invented it, or when, but it's always good when someone comes up with a word we didn't have and genuinely needed. Another such, I fear, is the unkind but forensically accurate Japanese neologism "bakkushan", a weird macaronic mix of English "back" and German "schön", meaning someone who looks gorgeous from behind but proves a fearful disappointment on turning round. That is very much a thing. So is someone who was once a parent but now is one no longer (and no, "bereaved parent" will not do; it needs a proper dedicated word, like widow or orphan, not just a definition).

Although I don't know a word for that in any language, one advantage of being a linguist is that you get to assemble a collection of these handy, ultra-specific words, which may not exist in your own tongue but do in others. When I hear people moaning because times have changed and they can no longer smoke indoors, drive half-drunk or catcall young women unchallenged, I think of them as "buivshi", the word Soviet Russia sometimes used to characterise people whose thought processes were stuck in pre-revolutionary times. It means "the former people", or "people of former times", and in that is reminiscent of our own "has-beens", but the meaning is different. Has-beens are people who were once noted, even famous, at what they did, but are now either out of style or past their best - an eighties pop star or an ageing boxer might be a has-been. Buivshi are people who belong in the past, who can't adapt to change. The closest in English might be "dinosaur", but apart from being a shade metaphorical, that connotes not just extinction but power, something that in its time was awesome, and doesn't quite convey the contempt in "buivshi".

Blumenkaffee, coffee so weak you can see the pattern of flowers on the inside of an old-fashioned china cup, is my favourite German contribution to this eccentric collection. Languages rich in compound words are especially good at coining new ones, but all languages have these words that are so particular and apposite, you can't think how your own tongue has done without them. They don't all catch on, or stay in the language. Blumenkaffee seems to have survived the demise of pretty cups with patterns inside, but the English "maffick", meaning to celebrate in the streets, came into use after the street celebrations of victory at Mafeking and soon died out again, though street celebrations did not. I hope niblings will survive.
Trollfjord in Norway

Virtual house move

Confusingly, I now have two websites. This came about because webs.com, which had been very easy to edit, got "improved", and of course you can guess with what result. It became very hard to edit, so I set up a new site at http://sheenagh.wix.com/sheenaghpugh.

I moved all the poetry-related stuff across, including the pages of resources for exam students. When it came to the stuff relating to novels and fan fiction articles though, I wondered if that was necessary. I don't really write either any more, so the pages at the old site were not going to need editing, which was the problem. Plus I don't trust any site builder not to go offline or just "upgrade" and make itself unusable. So I decided to keep the old site at http://sheenagh.webs.com/ as an archive site for the translations and prose-related stuff, and just in case I ever needed it again....

It's weird, because last time I moved house in real life, we kept the old house up for some years, because there was a very old cat living there who couldn't be moved...

Interview with Sue Rose

Sue Rose's first collection of poems, From the Dark Room was published by Cinnamon Press in 2011 and I reviewed it here. Sue Rose is a professional translator who lives in Herne Bay; she has been widely published in magazines and has won prizes in several competitions.

Hard Skin

She rests her legs on mine. I massage
her bunions, rub the lump on top of her foot.
She kneads my protesting arches, the corrugated bone
of my ankle, broken years ago and prone to aches.

I slide my nail under the white crusts
of skin on her toe tips, lifting wide strips, small flakes
like dried glue, worrying at the tiny tags
around her toenails, the brittle scales on her heels.

She huffs at the length of my nails, seizes
a pair of scissors and prunes them, twisting
my feet this way and that, brusque and careful,
though we both sometimes draw blood.

On this sofa we are intimate as lovers
with the callused contours of each other's feet,
mine accruing the mottled patina of hers,
the papery instep, the armoured ball.
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More of Sue's poems (including 'Caravaggio's Virgin' and 'Globe', referred to in this interview) can be found at Michelle McGrane's blog Peony Moon and others are at Poetry pf